Americans Quit Church but Still Search for Meaning, Now as Loners

(Nick Oxford/Reuters)
Traditional religion has social value. The individualistic quest for spirituality tends to leave the seeker isolated.

Look at any survey about the state of religion and you will find the same story of decline. Fewer Americans today than in past decades identify with a religion, attend church, engage in religious practices, and view faith as an important part of their lives. Those who advocate the secularization of society applaud such cultural change because they see it as evidence that people are turning away from all things supernatural. However, these trends may be less about our abandoning the supernatural and more about our abandoning each other.

As I discuss in my new book, Supernatural: Death, Meaning, and the Power of Invisible World, the decline of any particular religion does not reflect a decline in people’s orientation toward supernatural questions, curiosities, and beliefs. Most people still believe in God or a universal spirit. The majority of religious “nones” believe in God, a higher power, or a spiritual force. Even those who reject supernatural ideas can be influenced by them. For instance, researchers in Finland found that theists and atheists exhibited similar levels of physiological stress when reading aloud statements daring God to cause harm. Other studies indicate that even atheists have a tendency to believe in fate at least somewhat and that, at an intuitive level, they see nature in terms of design and purpose.

Almost one third of Americans report having felt in contact with someone who had died, feel that they have been in the presence of a ghost, and believe that ghosts can interact with and even harm humans. Of note, these numbers appear to be rising as more and more people quit church. Indeed, those who do not frequently attend church are twice as likely to believe in ghosts as are regular churchgoers. Americans are becoming more skeptical about religion but less skeptical about astrology. Paranormal tourism (e.g., visiting a haunted house) is on the rise. The U.S. has an estimated 1,200 haunted houses generating around $500 million in yearly revenue — both figures reflect a doubling within the last decade. More and more people are consuming self-help spiritual books and media oriented toward an interest in the supernatural. Young adults are less religious than older generations but are more inclined to believe in ghosts, astrology, and clairvoyance.

In addition, many who reject religion are attracted to what I describe as supernatural-lite beliefs. These are beliefs that require a leap of faith and have qualities that mimic more-traditional beliefs but do not explicitly invoke the supernatural. They are often superficially wrapped in the language of science and technology, making them more palatable to those who do not fancy themselves religious. These include, for example, beliefs about super-intelligent aliens monitoring and influencing the lives of humans. Surveys in United States and Europe find that the less religious people are, the more likely they are to believe that space aliens are among us and have played a role in the development of our societies.

But why are many of those who do not subscribe to a religious tradition drawn to alternative supernatural and supernatural-lite beliefs? Humans are a uniquely existential species. Our intelligence has allowed us to dominate the planet and bend nature to our will. New innovations in science and technology have made life longer and more comfortable, but ancient questions about the inevitability of death and the meaning of life still haunt us. Disease, crime, a personal health scare, natural disasters, terrorist attacks, the loss of a loved one, an accident or narrow brush with serious danger, and even the daily aches and pains associated with aging all serve as potent reminders that we are fragile beings who have but a brief moment in this world.

Supernatural beliefs are such a prominent feature of human life because we are a species in search of transcendent meaning, equipped with the cognitive capacity to contemplate supernatural ideas. For example, my colleague Andrew Abeyta and I find in our research that traditional religious beliefs as well as nontraditional supernatural and related beliefs are associated with the need for meaning. More broadly, a large body of research indicates that people turn to belief in the supernatural and related curiosities or hopes when grappling with existential fears and uncertainties about death and meaning. Such findings are not confined to psychology laboratories. For instance, researchers have observed that at the same time as religious faith was decreasing in New Zealand, it increased among those who were personally affected by a devastating earthquake that killed 185 people.

It isn’t enough to make life longer, easier, or even more pleasurable. People need to feel that they matter, that they are meaningful members of a meaningful social world. Not all beliefs in the supernatural or paranormal help to fulfill this need equally.

People may be looking to nontraditional beliefs in their search for meaning, but there are reasons to doubt that those are effective substitutes for religion. Religion may be a uniquely powerful meaning resource because, in addition to providing a needed space for spiritual engagement, it binds individuals to a meaning-sustaining social fabric. Many alternatives to traditional religion are products of an increasingly individualistic culture, more focused on personal interests and less on social duties. However, the more a belief system promotes interdependence, the more likely it is to enhance meaning. Research shows that belongingness increases a sense of meaning, whereas loneliness and social alienation undermine it. Similarly, the people who are least vulnerable to existential anxiety perceive themselves not just as distinct individuals but as part of broader social and cultural groups. Religion is best able to serve an existential function when it cultivates strong family, friendship, and community bonds. This isn’t to say that religion doesn’t have its own problems. After all, humans are involved. When people form groups, whether secular or religious, they become susceptible to in-group biases that can contribute to social conflict.

It is no small matter that, in their search for meaning, people are turning to beliefs that may not reliably generate and maintain meaning. Viewing life as full of meaning is associated with a wide range of positive health outcomes, including longevity. People who believe they have an important purpose in life tend to be motivated to take care of their physical, mental, and social health and are better able to manage the many challenges and stressors of life. Moreover, feeling that life is meaningless is a risk factor for depression, anxiety, problem drinking, drug abuse, and suicide — which are all on the rise in America.

It isn’t enough to make life longer, easier, or even more pleasurable. People need to feel that they matter, that they are meaningful members of a meaningful social world. Not all beliefs in the supernatural or paranormal help to fulfill this need equally. Our society is becoming not more truly secular but more individualistic and, as a result, more likely to suffer from an epidemic of meaninglessness.

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